Masters of Chaos

The Secret History of the Special Forces


By Linda Robinson

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Special Forces soldiers are daring, seasoned troops from America’s heartland, selected in a tough competition and trained in an extraordinary range of skills. They know foreign languages and cultures and unconventional warfare better than any U.S. fighters, and while they prefer to stay out of the limelight, veteran war correspondent Linda Robinson gained access to their closed world. She traveled with them on the frontlines, interviewed them at length on their home bases, and studied their doctrine, methods and history. In Masters of Chaos she tells their story through a select group of senior sergeants and field-grade officers, a band of unforgettable characters like Rawhide, Killer, Michael T, and Alan — led by the unflappable Lt. Col. Chris Conner and Col. Charlie Cleveland, a brilliant but self-effacing West Pointer who led the largest unconventional war campaign since Vietnam in northern Iraq.

Robinson follows the Special Forces from their first post-Vietnam combat in Panama, El Salvador, Desert Storm, Somalia, and the Balkans to their recent trials and triumphs in Afghanistan and Iraq. She witnessed their secret sleuthing and unsung successes in southern Iraq, and recounts here for the first time the dramatic firefights of the western desert. Her blow-by-blow story of the attack on Ansar al-Islam’s international terrorist training camp has never been told before.

The most comprehensive account ever of the modern-day Special Forces in action, Masters of Chaos is filled with riveting, intimate detail in the words of a close-knit band of soldiers who have done it all.


An Inside the Pentagon recommended book of 2004

Main Selection of the Military Book Club

"[The Special Forces are] the jazzmen of the military world, working without a score, improvising their way out of trouble. Robinson's book gives us an intimate, valuable history of the Special Forces' last two decades, and follows them through Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom."
New York Times

"Masters of Chaos is an insightful and fascinating account of the training, skill, courage and sacrifices of United States Special Forces and their extraordinary contribution to our defense in Iraq and in the war on terror. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the stamina and guts it takes to fight bravely and well in the most dangerous situations."
—Senator John McCain, Author of Faith of My Fathers and Why Courage Matters

"An exclusive look inside the world of U.S. special forces, the book is being cited by Sen. John McCain and the Washington Post's Book World as a signal contribution to the literature on the American military."
—Brian Duffy, US News& World Report

"Avoiding the breathless prose too often used to portray those who wear the green beret as Rambo-like super-commandos, [Robinson] depicts her subjects as flesh and blood humans."
Military Review

"For Special Forces soldiers, reading Masters of Chaos provides useful lessons learned from Special Forces operations over the last 20 years. For readers not intimately familiar with Special Forces, Masters of Chaos is recommended as a well-researched look into the missions and day-to-day lives of the men of the Army's Special Forces."
Special Warfare Magazine

"A well-rounded glimpse into this elite but covert group... a combination of battlefield action and personal insight rarely seen in accounts of America's elite warriors."
National Guard

[A] detailed, compelling, and sympathetic account of these uncommon soldiers,. . . .Robinson. . . puts a human face on the nuts and bolts of Special Forces training and real-world missions by weaving her analysis around the experiences of individual soldiers.

"Masters of Chaos is a truly exceptional depiction of how these amazing warriors operate effectively and calmly in what are quite literally chaotic situations. The title of the book says it all—US special forces are in fact masters of chaos. Linda Robinson's account is not only accurate, but is also spellbinding. No student of modern warfare should miss this important and timely work."
—Congressman Jim Saxton, Chairman, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, House Armed Services Committee

"Robinson's book is a first-rate account... ranks among the best military histories I've encountered."
—Huntington WV News

"Impressively readable. . . the book is a compelling group portrait of some of America's most dedicated warriors."
Publisher's Weekly

"[Y]ou may never look at... war news the same way. . . a rare look at missions carried out... in secret"
—Sherry Sontag, Co-Author of Blind Man's Bluff, the Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

"Linda Robinson has gone beyond the headlines and the hype to bring us into [the Special Forces'] brotherhood."
—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys

"This fascinating, dramatic account of the Special Forces... shows us the face of war in the 21st century."
—Robert Baer, author of See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil

To those who serve

Cast of Characters
SFC Andy Brittenham
MAJ Jonathan Burns
COL Charles Cleveland
LTC Christopher Conner
SFC Richard Davis
MAJ Warren Foster
MAJ Simon Gardner
MAJ James Gavrilis
CW2 Tony Goble
LTC Christopher Haas
COL Kevin Higgins (Ret.)
MSG Alan Johnson
SGM James Kilcoyne
MG Geoffrey Lambert
MAJ Andy Lohman
MAJ Tony Martin
COL David McCracken (Ret.)
CW3 James Newman
SFC Matthew Nittler
CW2 John Pace
MSG Steve Rainey
SFC Mark Reynolds
SFC Roderick Robinson
MSG Tom Rosenbarger
MAJ Jeffrey Smith
MSG Michael T. Swift
LTC Kenneth Tovo
LTC Robert Waltemeyer
CW3 Randall Wurst
Other anonymous soldiers (who asked to be identified only by ODA number and duty position)

The U.S. military, and American society as a whole, is once again being transformed by the experience of war. As an institution, the military is grappling with a phenomenon it has labelled "irregular warfare" to distinguish the insurgent and terrorist tactics of a nonuniformed adversary that fights hidden in populations from those of standing armored formations led by officers under a state authority. Signs abound that the challenges of this type of warfare are being taken seriously: a new manual has been issued on counterinsurgent operations, role-playing civilians figure prominently in training exercises, and irregular warfare has been given a central place in the Pentagon's current strategic examination called the Quadrennial Defense Review.
The implications for remaking much of the military's organization, training, and doctrine are huge. Foreign language training is just one example of a critically needed basic skill for fighting human networks. The officer and NCO corps contain many well educated and motivated Americans, and the institution has enshrined a process of learning lessons, but the thorny problem and the magnitude of retooling cannot be overstated. It requires a sea change from warfare based on mass, hardware, and even technology. Some of the most valuable lessons are ones from Vietnam that were forgotten or never learned, and which need to be relearned, ironically just as the memory of that war is fading from the nation's consciousness.
Special operations forces and in particular the oldest component unit, the U.S. Army Special Forces, have pioneered skills and developed the mindset needed to contest what is essentially a war for the human mind, in which influence is a more potent force than bullets. The Special Forces have been focused on this type of warfare since their founding in 1952. Some of their equipment, training and techniques can be readily imparted to the larger military community—and indeed such adoption is proceeding apace in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I rode with a conventional unit from Alaska whose task it was to probe village loyalties and coax information from recalcitrant Pashtun elders in the barren mountains of the Khost province along the Pakistan-Afghan border. I saw similar attempts to penetrate the semi-rural badlands west of Baghdad, where a young medic stitched up an Iraqi whose arm had been severely hacked after he dared to report to soldiers the burning to death of a teacher working to get out the vote.
Some roles cannot be replicated for the simple reason that even the brightest and best 19-year-old soldier cannot exercise the same judgment, influence and versatility as a seasoned Special Forces sergeant in his thirties or forties. These carefully selected and time-tested men prove most effective when they are given the latitude required to tailor a solution to the problem of the moment. While there are no panaceas, the 12-man Special Forces team provides the most adaptive tool the military has invented for irregular warfare. Thus, it is no surprise that the Special Forces are in great demand: many of them have been sent four, five and six times to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. A more rapid expansion of their ranks is possible and desirable, with sufficient resources and at a measured pace. But it is just as important to uphold the quality of individuals selected and their extensive training, and not to break this tool through overuse.
As the rest of the military develops its areas of expertise within the realm of irregular warfare, the Special Forces will likely be called to take up missions they are uniquely able to perform and which they have historically performed—behind hostile lines, under cover, in countries where trouble is brewing but still under the radar. When Charlie Cleveland, one of the soldiers in this book, was promoted to general in May 2005, he told his guests at the Fort Bragg ceremony that the Special Forces "are one of the most potent and relevant forces on the battlefield today." This was not chest-thumping; Cleveland was merely making an observation that has become widely accepted in the wake of their performance in Afghanistan and Iraq. He then issued two important calls to overcome parochialism. He called for the special operations community to move beyond the internal rivalry that has divided its so-called "white" or unclassified Special Forces Groups and its "black" classified units such as Delta Force. (The fact is that the former have also conducted secret missions throughout their history, and there is quite enough work to occupy them all.) Cleveland's second call was to, in effect, bid farewell to the tight-knit Special Forces community as he emphasized that the duty of a general officer is to look out for the interests of the entire military and the country. That is exactly the spirit required to navigate the daunting challenges of this era.

THIS IS THE STORY of Special Forces soldiers and the missions they have carried out over the last fifteen years. Through them the larger story is told of the renaissance of a unique military unit that was nearly disbanded after the Vietnam War but which now is in high demand. The war in Afghanistan brought the deeds of the Special Forces onto the front pages of the newspapers, which captured in vivid photographs and stories the men on horseback who used lasers to direct precision bombs at Taliban targets. Far less has been written about their subsequent roles in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where even more Special Forces soldiers were deployed than in Vietnam. Although the image of the Special Forces soldier now may be more familiar to the average American, the reality of who he is and what he does remains largely shrouded in mystery and misconceptions.
This book seeks to convey the reality of the Army Special Forces by recounting missions carried out during six conflicts and other previously unrevealed assignments, such as their roles in uncovering the first Al Qaeda operation on U.S. soil and the millennium plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport. The stories are told through the senior noncommissioned officers and field grade officers who led their units. By the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, these soldiers each had spent some two decades in the field, sharpening their instincts and amassing the experience that is an integral part of what makes them "special." The type of individuals selected, the varied skills they are taught, and their largely self-sufficient twelve-man teams constitute a tool designed to deal with variations of insurgents, terrorists, guerrillas, and small-scale wars—the murky unconventional threats that are prevalent in today's world.
What sets the Special Forces apart is that these soldiers are trained to live and work with the fighters of other countries, as their forebears did with the partisans in occupied Europe, as the Vietnam generation did with the hill tribes in their A-camps, and as has been done by them more recently in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. They have also lived and worked among civilian populations in places like Haiti and the Balkans, using cultural knowledge and linguistic skills to help build a lasting peace. Special Forces soldiers may fight alongside their allies, as they did with the Afghans and the Kurds, but very often the preferred means of assistance is advising, training, and assisting a country in solving its own problems. Because the Special Forces are the only unit in the military required to learn foreign languages and gain regional expertise, members also have an unmatched ability to discover and understand what is happening in remote and obscure hotspots.
There remains widespread confusion about the basic terminology. The U.S. Army Special Forces (Airborne) (known by their distinctive headgear, the green beret) are the subject of this book. The Special Forces are the largest component of the elite units known as special operations forces (SOF), which also include Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, the secret Delta Force (formally called Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta), Air Force Special Operations pilots and combat controllers, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations units. Popular usage frequently refers to all of these units as special forces, but the proper term is special operations forces. In this book Special Forces is synonymous with U.S. Army Special Forces.
The Special Forces number fewer than 9,500 men and are organized into five active-duty groups that are each assigned to a given region: 1st Group (Asia), 3rd Group (Africa), 5th Group (Southwest and Central Asia), 7th Group (Latin America), and 10th Group (Europe); and two National Guard groups, the 19th and 20th. These groups learn the languages and cultures of their respective regions but also may be sent to other regions as needed. The groups report to the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, which reports to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command for all army SOF which, in turn, reports to the U.S. Special Operations Command for all the services' SOF. This latter command may either assign units to the geographic combatant command of a particular theater or direct their activities itself.
The U.S. Army Special Forces were founded in 1952. It was envisioned that they would carry on the role played in World War II by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), whose paramilitary units parachuted behind enemy lines to organize and fight with local resistance groups in occupied Europe and Asia. The OSS was dismantled soon after the war and one of its veterans, Colonel Aaron Bank, was concerned that this left the United States without any capacity for waging this kind of "unconventional war." Bank considered such ability as integral a component of modern warfare as infantry, armor, and artillery. Because Bank successfully lobbied for the formation of the Special Forces and headed its first group, he therefore is considered the "father" of the Special Forces. Colonel Bank passed away in the spring of 2004 at the age of 101.
Bank considered it essential to have a standing force prepared to conduct unconventional war primarily because the various skills, especially knowledge of the language and the country where the units would be deployed, took time to acquire, and the special forces must be deployed early in a conflict for maximum effectiveness. From the early days until the present, the idea of unconventional warfare nonetheless is a concept that has made many Americans and the U.S. military uncomfortable. For soldiers such as Bank, however, it was a simple necessity to have this capacity to fight as so many adversaries fought. In his memoir, From OSS to Green Berets, he observed other countries using guerrilla-style warfare in the postwar years.
Unconventional warfare [UW] was definitely a weapon that continued to be employed. It was a tool of dissidents regardless of their cause. Its profound influence would continue unabated through the years to alter the military, political, and ideological posture of numerous small nations and create friction between the major powers. This friction in many instances is due to Soviets using this medium to spread their doctrines and gain control. But beyond that, on reflection, UW had proved itself during WWII as a companion of conventional warfare—a necessary supplement whenever the employment of conventional forces would not be feasible or would be embarrassing. I wondered when it would obtain full recognition by the military leaders of the great powers.1
Even after the founding of the Special Forces, the conventional military leadership would remain ambivalent about their use, but John F. Kennedy believed that a special warfare capability was essential for the United States. He saw the challenge posed by wars of subversion and covert aggression and realized that it called for
an improvement and enlargement of our own development of techniques and tactics, communications and logistics to meet this threat. The mission of our Armed Forces—and especially the Army today—is to master these skills and techniques and to be able to help those who have the will to help themselves.
Kennedy realized, furthermore, that the required tactics were not purely military but "a full spectrum of military, paramilitary and civil action" to counter the adversaries' own broad arsenal of "economic and political warfare, propaganda and naked military aggression."2
President Kennedy wrote those words on April 11, 1962, but they accurately describe the warfare not only of the Communist era but also of the present time, when other groups use the same full spectrum of measures. Special Forces were employed in the Vietnam War in the classic unconventional warfare mold. They set up A-camps in the Vietnamese highlands and recruited and led hill tribes in local defense, and also conducted covert raids into North Vietnam and the sanctuaries of Laos and Cambodia. After Vietnam about two-thirds of the Special Forces, which had been rapidly expanded and, in some instances, poorly trained and led, were deactivated. The low point of its existence mirrored the general crisis of confidence within the army after the worst defeat in its history. Some concluded that the United States was incapable of counterinsurgency, while others argued that the unconventional operations were hamstrung by a military that did not embrace or understand their methods. Still others believed that covert and clandestine warfare was simply un-American. How to best confront those who use unconventional methods was a debate destined to continue.
In the 1980s, after Soviet-backed communist movements gained ground in the Third World, the Special Forces experienced another period of expansion and revival. The strategies of containment and detente left Eastern Europe as Soviet satellites, so U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought to roll back communist gains by waging unconventional warfare in Southwest Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Special Forces played a role in those conflicts as well as in hostage-rescue efforts in the Middle East. The Special Forces' signal achievement of this period was in El Salvador, where over the course of a decade Special Forces advisers professionalized the Salvadoran armed forces and helped them conclude a long insurgency at the cost of only nineteen American lives. Success did not come until 1992, but it proved to be a lasting peace.
The 1990s brought a new host of challenges. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the eruption of conflicts all over the globe, the newly resurgent Special Forces had no shortage of work. They participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama from 1989 to 1990, in their first combat missions since Vietnam, and fought in Desert Storm in Kuwait in 1991. The post-Vietnam generation of Special Forces soldiers represented in this book began their careers in the late 1980s or early 1990s and have been deployed frequently ever since.
The premise of this book is that these soldiers' extensive and diverse experiences can inform the larger debate over the need for and proper use of the country's special operations forces. The most common type of threat today comes not from standing armies of enemy states but from groups that wage war from the shadows, wearing no uniforms and claiming no state but able to wreak havoc by using the basic precepts of guerrilla warfare. These actors understand that the only way to confront a larger, stronger enemy is to use unconventional tactics that turn their weaknesses into strengths. They understand that the battlefield is a human one and that creating psychological impact is the key to victory. The sheer number of deaths on September 11, 2001, did not materially weaken the United States, but the perception was that America's security, and its sense of invulnerability, had been shattered.
Terrorism may be best understood as a subset of the broader category of unconventional warfare. It is a particular type of unconventional tactic characterized by attacks on civilians. The official U.S. definition of terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."3 The motivation of the group is not the defining characteristic; terrorism has been used throughout history by smaller groups seeking to defeat more powerful ones. Their cause may be sectarian, nationalist, or ideological, but they hold in common the use of this form of irregular warfare.
The first World Trade Center attack, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the Madrid train bombing of 2004: the continuing trail indicates that the tactics will be studied, copied, and used in the future. The American public can rightly ask what kind of unconventional capability of its own the United States requires to counter such attacks. Are there ways of addressing these threats before they result in attacks? Can the measures be discriminate to avoid causing the same sort of civilian casualties that are the objective of the attackers?
The elusive nature of the latter-day adversaries and the difficulty of detecting attacks in the offing have led some to conclude, since September 11, that even greater use must be made of special operations forces to disrupt and prevent such attacks. The special operations forces, with their unique capabilities, "are the primary Department of Defense tool for fighting the war on terror," according to Thomas O'Connell, the department's senior civilian official responsible for overseeing SOF. "While special operations forces were originally conceived to be used as forces for supporting or leveraging larger conventional forces or for undertaking discrete and limited strategic missions," he said, "the new reality has confirmed them as a prominent, frontline, essential element in the defense of our nation."4 Congress not only agreed with the assessment but authorized funding increases in successive years that were even larger than the administration requested.
There is continuing discussion about how best to use these forces. Some uses of Special Forces—fighting in overt wars, assisting standing governments, and gathering information for military operations—are relatively uncontroversial. Raising guerrilla forces to combat a threat or staging a covert operation to capture or even kill terrorist leaders are far more sensitive propositions, but are not necessarily contrary to U.S. law or interests. The U.S. laws known as Title 10 and Title 50 provide the legal framework for the United States to undertake overt, clandestine, or covert operations of all these types. There is a standing presidential executive order against assassination, although lethal force has been authorized against Osama bin Laden and the senior Al Qaeda leadership. Some suspected terrorists and accused war criminals have also been seized by stealth. While the American tradition is to frown on secrecy and favor accountability, the nation's legislature nevertheless has seen the need for forces that can conduct operations in the interest of national security in a low-visibility, clandestine, or covert manner.
As with so many moral questions, the answers often are found not in absolutes but in a balancing of good and evil. The current debate about how much secrecy and how much latitude are required echoes the earlier debates of the 1960s and 1980s. That is not surprising, as there is an inherent tension between the secrecy required for special operations to be effective and the openness and accountability of a democratic society. Only through debate, moreover, can the competing demands be reconciled. Some argue that the current rules are insufficient, while others argue that they are too restrictive or require adjusting to the needs of the era. It is important to note, however, that established procedures and strictures do exist. According to one camp, they are so zealously interpreted as to result in a relative few tepid, last-ditch operations that, under such conditions, are almost certain to come up short.5


On Sale
Mar 5, 2009
Page Count
424 pages

Linda Robinson

About the Author

Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at RAND. She has been an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. Her book about the U.S. Army Special Forces, Masters of Chaos, was a New York Times bestseller; Tell Me How This Ends, which is about the Iraq War, was a Foreign Affairs bestseller and a New York Times notable book. Robinson received the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Reporting on National Defense in 2005. She has conducted field research on special operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Latin America, and elsewhere over the past twelve years.

Learn more about this author